Talks on holding a referendum in 2016 on a new student centre for UL are well underway.
This semester, a new initiative which will investigate the possibility of having a new and more suitable student centre that would accommodate the Union, Clubs & Societies and all the other necessary student services, currently housed in the Student Union building in the courtyard is currently taking place.
 
The current building, built in the 1990s for a student body half the size it is now, has long been insufficient to hold the services it provides. The new idea is to open up the discussion about what exactly the plans would incorporate, to the student body as a whole, as well as to the members of the organisations involved who are in dire need of appropriate space to carry out their work and activities.
 
The architect being tasked with coming up with the design, Hugh Kelly, of Hugh Kelly Architects has been very involved in gathering opinions on what a design might entail. The questions fuelling the basis of his ideas for a design proposal have been:
 
What services are needed?
 
What is important about having a students’ union and its services? What sorts of facilities do we want in UL?
 
How can we make a student centre that supports student life?
 
In this way, the design will be driven by the needs and wants of the university community itself.
 
Contrary to previous proposals on a student centre, there is a call for ideas to be much more focused on bettering the overall atmosphere of student life in the university this time.
 
In the past, some of the ideas were seen as being over the top and not really dealing with the problems and deficiencies of the out of date and inadequate facilities being talked about.
 
Some of the ideas that have come up so far range from basic operational necessities like, for example, space for Clubs & Societies to store their equipment as, presently, they have no suitable storage facilities.
 
There is also a need for meeting rooms and offices for Union staff, because, at the moment, some important meeting rooms have to be shared and other rooms around campus have to be hunted down at the last minute, creating real chaos when trying to conduct Union affairs. As well as that, there have been calls for a student centre that can be the real heart of the campus for students; a place to go just for them, a non-academic space with enough areas to sit, work, chat and socialise in a welcoming and chilled out atmosphere.
 
In a recent survey, students said the current SU building is dark and unwelcoming. A new design would hopefully create a space where students might feel at home, with enough space for all the services to be able to support the challenges of student life. It has been suggested that a large lounge area in the front, where students could stroll in and set up stress free, a courtyard-like central area to encourage social life, open, bright spaces with room to study and high speed internet and kitchen facilities so that they can heat up food and don’t have to pay for food in restaurants, would make a genuine difference.
 
These are just some of the ideas being talked about. The size of the new facility and what it would hold will be decided by discussions like these that look at what we really want from a student centre.
 
The story so far
There has been two referendums so far on the topic; in 2012 the proposal for a student centre, as well as an extension to the Arena Sports Centre and repair of the Maguire sports pitches was put to the student body and was rejected. The proposal would have involved a student levy of €130.
 
Some of the reasons behind the rejection were that mock-up designs were dotted around campus on the days running up to the referendum and some voters believed the drawings were final, when in fact they were just an impression of what could be possible.
 
These designs included a three-story nightclub and cinema, and people felt that didn’t reflect their needs or wants. This was not communicated well and there was an issue with people not being well informed about all aspects involved. Voters also spoke about it being an ‘all or nothing’ option, where if you were in favour of, for example, repair of the sports pitches but not of the student centre you might have just voted no on that basis.
 
Another problem was the timing; students felt overwhelmed by a hostile financial climate while already being on a tight budget dealing with the usual costs of student life.
 
In 2014, another referendum was held – this time, the section on the student centre was to conduct a detailed needs analysis with focus groups and expert advice before the final plans being voted on down the line by another, separate referendum. The pitch upgrade and Arena extension were also included.
 
The levy attached was reduced to €67 to take into account students’ ability to afford it. While this strategy was much more popular, with a yes vote of 63%, it was not enough to reach the required 66% to guarantee the motion would pass. Referendums of this type require a qualified majority of two thirds or more to be passed according to the ULSU constitution.
 
For the moment, the student centre alone is being looked into in terms of the plans for the referendum, but this time it is open to all UL ID holders and is being drawn from the ground up instead of being dictated.
 
The issues
One of the arguments, aside from the specifics of each previous referendum on this topic, was the point that the plans won’t be finished by the time the student who pays the associated levy will have graduated and therefore won’t benefit from the new and improved facilities.
 
Justification for voting ‘no’ came in the form of “I won’t be here, so why should I pay?” Seen by some as a selfish attitude, it also comes from a place of struggle, student costs and budget management. Sometimes extra calls for students to give out cash they don’t have are just too much to ask on top of everything else.
 
In some cases however, the facilities we have on campus today, can be attributed to past students who voted to pay a student levy for something they saw as valuable to the entire UL community, as well as the wider region. For example, the construction of the UL boathouse was down to a referendum that was passed and now houses the UL Rowing Club, which has won numerous awards and has gained a lot of prestige for the university, growing our national and international reputation.
 
One important part of the proposed plans this time, is that incoming students will feel some of the benefits. So, some, if not a major part, of the work will be finished within the usual four years of an undergraduate degree, so that first years who agree on the referendum and pay an associated levy will enjoy its benefits by fourth year.
 
As well as this, current students and alumni alike could enjoy a new student centre. In addition, it should be remembered that when the reputation of a university is improved nationally and internationally, the degree that graduates hold is also enhanced and that cannot be bad for their future careers or studies.
 
In the upcoming weeks and months, more talks will be held to discuss the plans further. What is important is that if students are to approve this idea they should be involved in its planning. To have your voice heard, stay in touch with your class, Union and Clubs & Societies’ representatives.